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Innovation and belief drives hope for hospitality as lockdown begins

We talk to Black Sheep Brewery’s chief executive, Charlene Lyons, about the renowned brewer's response to the pandemic, alongside Jonathan Pollard, Corporate Partner at Ward Hadaway.

In the new series ‘Inspiring Growth in Yorkshire’, Greg Wright of the Yorkshire Post talks to those companies leading the way in the region.

The series conceived and commissioned by the Leeds-based law firm celebrates entrepreneurialism, shines a spotlight on business success, and uses those who have been there and done that to act as a guiding light. This week we talk to Black Sheep Brewery’s chief executive, Charlene Lyons, alongside Jonathan Pollard, Corporate Partner at Ward Hadaway.

“Never in a million years could anyone predict the situation facing businesses across the UK right now,” says Charlene Lyons, CEO, Black Sheep Brewery. “Especially those in the hospitality industry who continue to face a myriad of challenges with yet another lockdown as we approach traditionally our busiest time of the year.”

Breweries across the country have been hugely affected with the closure of pubs, clubs and bars as well as ‘corona’ legislation that hugely impacts sales.

“To put it into context, if the sale of chocolate was outlawed what would happen to cocoa manufacturers?” asks Lyons. “They would inevitably have to close as they’d lose all of their income, overnight. The same applies to breweries. We are an industry that traditionally relies on the sale of ale, beer and lager in the UK’s 60,000 plus pubs, clubs and bars. If those close, what can we do? And this extends through to our entire supply chain from hop and malt suppliers to bottle and can suppliers.”

As well as supplying pubs and bars across Yorkshire and the UK, Black Sheep Brewery has an online shop, where people can buy their favourite beer directly. Before 2020 this wasn’t the brewery’s biggest focus but that soon changed, and significantly.

Six weeks prior to an unprecedented national lockdown, the cogs at Black Sheep had already started turning. Lyons and her team created a contingency plan in the event that a full-scale lockdown would ensue. And how vital that decision was.

Black Sheep developed a fully-fledged online strategy where it focused on its unique brand, readdressing off-trade activity, where the brewery sold directly to customers through its website or from supermarket shelves. The business overhauled its packaging and how it appealed directly to the consumer, introducing mini-kegs and a new delivery service. Combined with a large scale and sustained social media drive, Black Sheep saw online sales through www.blacksheepbrewery.com skyrocket by 3,000 per cent.

“As the first lockdown loomed, we were already in the process of switching to plan B, a plan we knew most likely had to be plan A for a long period of time,” continues Lyons. “Not only have we maintained our bespoke and highly personalised brand but we’ve differentiated it from competitors and positioned ourselves as a brewery who, despite pub and club closures, can continue to make some of the finest Yorkshire ale in the UK and deliver this right to your doorstep.”

“From our local home delivery service across the farms, villages and towns of North Yorkshire, to our national mail order operation, we have experienced an explosion in interest from customers up and down the country that want their taste of Black Sheep.”

Black Sheep’s strong and focused leadership is clear to see. Lyons and her team have not just steadied a ship approaching an iceberg, they’ve managed to steer it towards brighter horizons.

Jonathan Pollard, a partner at Ward Hadaway, explains why Black Sheep Brewery has demonstrated key qualities that all businesses require to enjoy the good times and create opportunity during the challenging periods.

“If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that companies must be nimble and able to adapt at any time to the changing situation. The ability to diversify and develop a strategy, service or product that makes an organisation stand out from others is crucial. These qualities, alongside a strong and focused leadership team that can come together and make brave business decisions to direct the company through uncertain times, are hallmarks of a successful business.”

Black Sheep is keen to demonstrate to other businesses that even in the face of great adversity, success is possible. Especially for a thriving business community like Yorkshire’s that’s brimming with creativity, innovation and a desire to achieve.

Lyons adds: “If there’s only one piece of advice I can give to any Yorkshire business struggling with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, it’s that you cannot afford to have any fear. Leaders must remain agile because the situation changes so rapidly and often. You must believe the impossible is possible and demonstrate resilience to overcome challenges by being bold and brave, despite the uncertainty.”

This article originally appears in The Yorkshire Post on 26 November 2020.

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